Arts & culture, Musicology

Censoring the Flute? Mozart’s Opera and Revolutionary Panic

Professor Rachel Cowgill

Three years ago I published a collection of essays that included a study of the early reception of The Magic Flute (1791), easily the most opaque of all of Mozart’s mature operas.  In it, I talked about recent research that suggests we misrepresent The Magic Flute if we interpret it as a Masonic allegory – an idea which is entrenched in the literature, even as far as the theory that Mozart was murdered by fellow freemasons for daring to put Masonic secrets onstage.

Playbill for the 1791 premiere

Playbill for the 1791 premiere

I referred to scholars such as David Buch, who argue that Magic Flute is much more a reflection of late eighteenth-century Viennese fascination with fairy tales than an attempt to promote a mystical, idealistic, or esoteric message about the potential of mankind to achieve Enlightenment.

My essay extended this debate by exploring early audience and critical responses to The Magic Flute, focusing particularly on a manuscript English translation of the libretto held in the British Library which dates from the mid 1790s, just a few years after Mozart’s opera was premiered (BL Add. MS 25965).

As a prologue, the anonymous translator offers an interpretation of the opera along Masonic lines that I discovered had been published in the German press in 1794.  The manuscript had been overlooked by opera scholars, but was among a large collection of playscripts submitted to the Irish dramatist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan for performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Sheridan was proprietor.  I argued that the fact no production ensued might have been because the opera was considered politically incendiary, because early responses attributed a radical masonic message to the opera that was associated at the time with revolutionary fervour.

Fear of revolution spreading over the Channel was almost tangible in British society at this time, which has been described as something of a police state.  We know, for example, that Sheridan was not permitted to stage King Lear, probably for fear this would be seen as a comment on the illness of George III – the government was policing the stage and written media with great diligence.

At the time of writing I could only suggest that Sheridan had withheld the opera – after all, he might simply have overlooked the manuscript or thought it unfit for London tastes.

Recently, however, while I was working on the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre correspondence in The National Archive at Kew, I came across a letter written to Sheridan from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1792, that shows the extent to which the authorities were holding Sheridan answerable not only for the political content of his plays, but also for the conduct of his audiences – he was ordered to suppress the singing of an anthem associated with the French revolutionaries, ‘Ça ira’, or face his theatre being closed and his revenue stopped.

Demons in the sky sing "Ça ira" as the blade of the guillotine severs the head of Louis XVI in this British print published just four days after the king's execution on 21 January 1793.

Demons in the sky sing “Ça ira” as the blade of the guillotine severs the head of Louis XVI in this British print published just four days after the king’s execution on 21 January 1793.

Until I read this letter, I had not fully appreciated the extent of the British government’s paranoia over the spread of revolt and the extent to which even a simple song was regarded potentially as a torch that threatened to ignite the touchpaper of revolution.  Of course this is still not proof that Sheridan suppressed The Magic Flute for political reasons, but it certainly shows that the stakes were high and that it was difficult for him at this time to have taken a risk.

The letter reads:

                                                        Lord Chamberlain’s Office

                                                                                                                                30th March 1792


                Information having been given, at this Office, that the Tune of Ça ira has been mostly, and repeatedly Called for from several Parts of the Theatre, in St. James’s Haymarket under your direction, I think it my Duty as Chamberlain of this King’s Household to acquaint you that Except you take the Proper Measures to prevent that Tune being Play’d, in case it shall be called for in future the Theatre will be shut up. 

                                I am

                                                Sir your Obliging Servant


                                Richard Brinsley Sheridan Esq.r


To judge for yourself the political resonances of Mozart’s opera, why not support Cardiff University Operatic Society in their production of The Magic Flute at the Gate Arts Centre, Roath, Cardiff, 7.30pm on 28-29 March 2014?


Earlier this year Stanford University launched a digital archive of images of the French Revolution in association with the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, bringing together online an extraordinary 12,000 plus visual items documenting aspects of the Revolution. It’s an amazing resource and well worth a browse, although the content is often chilling!


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